I have loved comics since I was 7 years old. My grandmother bought me a copy of "Justice League of America" on a trip to the drugstore, and I was hooked.
Alan Moore's graphic novel "Watchmen," made into a movie in 2009, changed comics forever in the 1980s. Heroes were not black and white, but shades of gray, Parnell observes. (Photo: Warner Bros.)
Back then the comics told tales of guys and gals in long underwear who flew around doing all manner of derring-do. It was clear who the good guys were and who the bad guys were. There was no need to show us anything but what happens when right overcomes evil.
Things began to change when Marvel Comics started telling stories of people who were super-powered but conflicted in some way. Peter Parker took on the mantle of Spider-Man as a teenager out of guilt over the death of his beloved Uncle Ben. Those heroes were flawed for all to see. They still overcame evil, but they had issues.
Then in the 1980s, Alan Moore asked what the real world would be like if superheroes really existed. What impact would a true superhuman have on the world? His 12-issue series "Watchmen" changed comics forever. Characters became darker and more sinister. The heroes were not black and white, but shades of gray. This and Marvel's type of flawed hero made a lasting impact on comics.
Nowadays, a lot of comics aren't like the ones found on the spinner racks of my childhood drugstore. They are longer and contain more complex themes and plots. These are known as graphic novels – self-contained stories in which a character or group of characters progresses over a period of time – all in a single story.
One of the most popular graphic novels last year was Robert Crumb's telling of the book of Genesis. Crumb created a word-for-word novelization of Genesis, from Adam to Joseph. He pulled no punches; his drawings showed us all the gory details. The cover offers this recommendation: "Adult Supervision Recommended for Minors."
Another recent graphic novel, "A God Somewhere" by John Arcudi, Peter Snejbjerg and Bjarne Hansen, gives us Eric Forester, a character that is clearly a born-again Christian. Eric experiences a tragic event – something that would be labeled an "act of God." It kills hundreds but turns Eric into a superhuman.
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Eric can fly. He has super-strength and is seemingly invulnerable to bullets and weapons. After he gains this power, he tells his friend, Sam, that God gave him this gift.
There is cursing, violence and sexual activity, all with a backdrop of one who professes Christ. Eric engages in none of that, but what he does is far worse. And the question is, "Why?" Why tell a story with such dramatic Christian imagery and include all the profane subject matter? Why didn't Crumb give us a Sunday school version of Genesis, like the one we used to find in the doctor's office?
First, the producers of these comics are speaking to their audience. Today's readers grew up in a culture that tolerated more violence and language. They are not shocked by what they see here, whereas others may find it objectionable.
Second, the storytelling now focuses on realism. If you are going to tell the story of a person who is transformed into a super-powered human, ugliness will follow. If you are going to be true to the book of Genesis, you have to include the violent and sexual parts.
In one case, the comics are reflecting our culture. In the other, they are sticking with their subject matter. Both cases make many Christians uncomfortable.
Escapism is not the goal here. That once was, but not anymore. Graphic novels dealing with life's issues hold up a mirror; they show us ugliness and sin. That is our world. That is us.
What I believe the producers of "A God Somewhere," for example, are trying to tell us is that for this world to witness one with great power, that person would be no different than we are. Even we who are "redeemed" need to know that we have a dark side, and we must understand it.
In the end, we are what we are, and that's what today's producers of comics are showing us. That vision may be ugly, but sin is an ugly thing. It may be overkill to fill the pages of these books with language and images that show it, but not to do so is a denial of what is.
Mike Parnell is pastor of Beth Car Baptist Church in Halifax, Va.